Embracing The Gentle Art of Slowing Down
In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
- Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness
Speed is our DNA.
Driven by our inherent sense of meritocracy, this molecule collides with an almost equally inherent sense of personal manifest destiny. It seems all our movement is about winning: winning in fitness, winning against friends, winning against the clock, winning against ourselves. Perpetual haste the pace, it takes more discipline to slow down than to speed up.
A buddy prompted me to join him on the Nike running app. I could monitor his progress, he could see mine. Nike’s built-in gamification allowed us to play ‘tag’, pitting our fastest/slowest times against each other. The minute I joined the game, a loss was afoot: my joy in running dissolved. It wasn’t apparent at first. The pursuit of being first (or rather, not being last) was a euphoric feeling that compelled me to win at all costs. Though I was ‘winning’, I lost.
If you’re not enjoying something, it’s almost always because you’re doing it too fast. — Donna Tartt
Why do I run? (Why do I live?) Do I run to win? Am I merely running to or running from? Do I run to really live within the pulsating verve of life, or do I run (as Seneca once stated) to simply long exist? Living well is what the Greek and Roman philosophers taught. Living well is what eastern religions have long practiced. Living long or living loud is what we’ve replaced for living well, particularly in our endurance-racing-heart-pounding extreme sports today.
The poet Zbiegniew Herbert lay in a hospital dying, composing yet another window onto reality, asking ‘Maybe I didn’t live but endured — cast against my will into something hard to govern and impossible to grasp, a shadow on the wall’. These questions plague me too, as I pound the pavement, creeping upon a total of 2,000 miles around (basically) the same five mile radius around my neighborhood, my relentless routine of circular reasoning.
Everyone sends his life racing headlong and suffers from a longing for the future, a loathing of the present. — Seneca, Hardship and Happiness
Andre Dubus wrote that “we are … running for catharsis: the patterns of our lives are more complex, and the running has become more necessary”. Running, cycling, rowing, climbing (whatever your predilection): Is catharsis our prime mover? Is it possible we aid and abet our anxieties by conspiring with our frenetic selves in a duplicitous race toward progress, losing something crucial along the way … our peace? I ask myself, motion or more commotion?
I know a man who runs every morning. He runs into the foothills, where there are deep, many-colored folds in the earth, and there are many more rabbits than people. The running, it may be, satisfies some longing in his breast. — N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn
Lying under the skilled hands of a massage therapist. Watching ocean waves lap the shore. Swaying in a hammock amid a spring breeze: stillness is a veil.
Even during our most relaxing moments, we cannot truly be still. It is movement we long for in repose … not stillness. Running along a dirt road, I stopped to observe the brilliant azure sky. Lying on my back, I soon felt restlessness stir beneath me until a hawk appeared in my periphery. I watched its sweeping circles, my mind contented more with the oscillating dot than the blank slate of crystal blue sky. In sitting meditation, the movement of our breath is “a kind of vehicle that brings us back to our body in the present moment” (Thich Nhat Hanh). The constant, gentle motion delivers us back unto ourselves.
True stasis, while alive, is impossible. “Transitoriness is the soul of existence”.*
Standing beside a rushing river, I take a cup of water from the turbulence and watch it grow placid under my eyes. I reduce it to a spoonful, place it under a microscope, and the river rages again as microorganisms teem and roil … even that which we presume still, epitomizes ceaseless activity.
“Happiness is the longing for repetition” wrote Milan Kundra. Arguing against routine-as-monotony he implies that repetity in life cultivates joy. "Ritual," states the Tao Te Ching, "is the husk of true faith". The beads on a catholic rosary, a string of Hindu mala, the chanting of a mantra during meditation, they attest to our inner desire for repititious movement even during our most tranquil practices, the constancy an abettor to peace. Keith Richards (yes, Keith Richards) stated: “There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it … the human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one.”
We need continual motion.
But motion as commotion, the rush-to-dress, rush-to-work, rush-at-work and rush home was the agitation I carried with me to my workout, while trying to obtain equanimity through fitness, I lost it. I see now why it was easy to quit. When all my moving becomes merely a means to an end, it’s easy to resign when the end shrinks away. Epictetus wrote in the first century:
It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we probably understand and live by this principle, while difficulties will arise -for they are part of the divine order too- inner peace will still be possible.
Running, for the sake of equanimity merely recycled anxious thoughts into more anxious thoughts. Rather than run peaceably, I chased peace as if it were a fugitive. Running is therapeutic and inherently ruminative, but a cycle that can be a relentless churn of negative energy. If I ran fast enough, I would suppress the negative energy only to discover later that I merely funnelled it deeper into myself. The perpetual pace was either a desperate grasp for euphoria from yesterday (as the poet Herbert once said of his altar ego Mr. Cogito, he “could not step into the river of his former joy”) or the pursuit of an elusive peace for tomorrow, all at the expense of tranquility in the present moment.
Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really … It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test is always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself. — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Lacking equanimity during my run, I seem to “build my personal problems right into the machine itself”. When Murakami stated he “runs to acquire a void”, this seems closer to true equanimity than running to achieve (solely) the means to an end goal (fitness, winning). Of all the incredulous ideas about fitness I’ve entertained, including those radical running events so readily available today (running through plumes of colored powder, running over fire, running for beer, donuts, crawling through obstacles, or running in the dark) I’ve never considered that the gentle art of slowing the @$*! down might be the most adventurous of them all. To Honore Balzac, even walking was to miss the point: “To saunter is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live”.
What was missing in my movement was not merely a slower pace, it was the willingness to savor. To taste a "stillness so complete, you hear the whispering inside you."** Instead of fitness being yet another categorical task for my life, one that I frantically ran to and from, I now try to heed the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famous photographer, suggesting that we, “work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds”.
We are the sum of all the moments of our lives. — Thomas Wolfe
* Thomas Mann, This I Believe
** Jack Gilbert, “Betrothed”